Taylor made: Four plays that sum up Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke's success

ASHBURN, Va. -- After another win Sunday, the Washington Commanders' sixth in seven games, head coach Ron Rivera summed up quarterback Taylor Heinicke's day with one word.

“Taylor,” he said.

Rivera then expanded on that lone sentence, explaining what he meant. He didn’t have to. In other words, the 19-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons encompassed everything Heinicke was about: the good, the bad, the occasional ugly and the occasional beauty.

“It’s what we’d expect, make some plays, do a couple of things, but then come around and make that play that’s going to ignite things,” Rivera said.

It’s the Heinicke experience in a nutshell. He flirts with danger each game. His limitations -- size, arm strength -- lead many to wonder how good this offense could be with him.

In some ways, he’s become a Rorschach test for fans: Do you judge him by the near-disaster plays? Or the ones he makes in crucial spots? Are they 10-4 in his last 14 starts because -- or in spite -- of him?

While Rivera has said Heinicke will continue to start, he hasn’t said it’s for the remainder of the season. Heinicke’s leash isn’t long, but it’ll likely take more than one bad game for Washington to return to Carson Wentz, who still hasn’t been placed on the 53-man roster after breaking his right ring finger on Oct. 13. After all, Washington is 5-1 with Heinicke starting; he’s thrown seven touchdowns to five interceptions.

The Commanders are winning largely with their run game, defense and special teams. However, coaches have often pointed to Heinicke’s knowledge of the offense and ability to manage the game as another key to helping the offense, often at a critical time. His limitations might not make him anything other than a high-end backup, but the value he adds stems from his knowledge. Sometimes it's as simple as delivering plays with conviction in the huddle, relaying them directly to each position group when it's their part of the play. And that knowledge has resulted in multiple key plays this season.

‘Throw of the century’

Washington quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese didn’t hesitate to describe Heinicke’s throw to receiver Terry McLaurin on a third-and-9 play versus the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 23.

“That was the throw of the century,” Zampese said.

Slight exaggeration aside, it was one of Heinicke’s most impressive throws at a crucial moment. The pass occurred with 2:13 remaining and enabled Washington to use up all but the final 29 seconds in a 23-21 win.

But, if Heinicke didn’t trust not only the read but also the receiver, the play doesn’t happen. He unloaded the ball before McLaurin even broke off his route because he was about to be sacked. If Heinicke waited even two-tenths of a second longer, he’s sacked and Washington gives Aaron Rodgers the ball back with more than two minutes remaining to kick a game-winning field goal.

“That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to get to more often,” Zampese said. "It’s tough. You’ve got to trust it and throw it early. It’s so easy to go, ‘Oh, he made the break now I throw it.' But you don’t get yards after the catch when you do that. The guys with supposedly lesser arms have to live like that [and] go get balls to spots and downfield targets more than guys that can wait and fire rockets.”

Heinicke knows he must compensate for not having a strong arm by anticipating throws, sneaking them in as a receiver cuts.

“You’ve got to throw him open instead of seeing him open,” Heinicke said. “Terry’s not out of his break, but I’m like he’s going to be in this area let’s give it a little bit of touch so he gets out of his break and can find it and make a play.”

With cornerback Jaire Alexander on McLaurin's inside hip, the ball could only go to one area: the outside. It did. McLaurin turned, returned two yards back for the ball and made the 12-yard catch.

“He’s giving his guys a chance to make plays,” McLaurin said. “If that ball is on the inside, it’s probably an interception.”

Two weeks ago at the Houston Texans, Heinicke delivered another strike to McLaurin on a deep out. Heinicke hit his fifth step, planted and threw as McLaurin turned outside. Any delay would have resulted in a sack as a Texans defender drilled him as the ball was being released.

“Even with the pressure the ball comes out because he has feel and instincts to know when the ball has to leave as opposed to, ‘I have to see it first and then throw it,’” Zampese said. “That takes that extra hitch worth of time and now you’re hit. He’s able to throw the ball early with anticipation and that gets us out of some situations.”

Under pressure

In Week 11 at Houston, the Commanders faced a second-and-5 from their own 44-yard line. Heinicke faked to running back Brian Robinson at the snap and had three receiver options against man coverage: Curtis Samuel running down the right seam, McLaurin running a deep crosser and Dyami Brown running a dig route. McLaurin and Brown were breaking open, just as a blitz was getting to Heinicke.

Rather than wait, Heinicke relied on his knowledge: He knew where tight end Logan Thomas would be after chipping the defensive end. Thomas cut back inside and Heinicke connected with him just as he was leveled. Thomas gained 19 yards on the play.

“We’re trying to push the ball down the field, but if there’s pressure quick I need to find a quick option,” Heinicke said. “It’s really like a [26-yard] play because if I don’t hit him there, I’m sacked for a seven-yard loss. It’s knowing if the s--- hits the fan, where can I get the ball out quick and not lose yards.”

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said there are many throws that Heinicke makes that stem from how and what they practice. The execution in games resembles practice. And that results from preparation.

But he said where the knowledge shows up would be plays like the one to Thomas, where he’s a checkdown option.

“When stuff breaks down,” Turner said, “those are the types of things that maybe take you back to, 'Hey, this guy's comfortable, he's repped these plays so many times that he understands what are the problems and then what are the solutions.'”

Earlier in the game, Heinicke hit his plant step and threw the ball just as Thomas broke to the outside. Heinicke threw to a spot -- no defender was in the area -- and Thomas ran over and completed the 16-yard grab, with a linebacker trailing.

“His timing is better and a quarterback has to have better timing,” Thomas said. “The more comfortable you are, the ball is snapped and you don’t have to think. That’s where he’s at now. For him, the progression is one, two and then I know where to get the ball out to. I know where my checkdown is going to be. This offense is not a simple offense to pick up quickly.

“On that corner route, I just broke it off and the ball was there. He knows how I’m going to run my route.”

Digging McLaurin

In Heinicke’s first start two years ago -- a playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- he connected with McLaurin on three dig routes. It’s a staple of this offensive system and continues to be a solid play for the duo.

“He’s thrown that route really well since he got here,” McLaurin said. “It’s a concept we’re comfortable with and he throws it really well.”

But McLaurin pointed to a throw against Houston that showed how familiarity and development have merged to help him make a better throw. On a first-and-10 from their own 18-yard line, Heinicke faked a handoff to Robinson, dropped back five steps as he looked left. Then, upon hitting his fifth step, he looked back right and connected with McLaurin for 19 yards.

What McLaurin liked, however, was the ball placement. Heinicke saw the safety on the hashmark close to McLaurin -- and knew he would open that way. He delivered a low ball that enabled McLaurin to catch as he slid to the ground -- and avoid a severe collision.

“His confidence to put the ball has grown,” McLaurin said. “I don’t want to be stretched out for that in certain situations, like against Houston. He threw it low and away and that allowed me to protect myself. That’s more familiarity.”

‘Perfect timing’

The familiarity leads to timing and that can lead to points, as it did against Atlanta on Sunday when Heinicke connected with tight end John Bates for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

“That was perfect timing,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “That throw was terrific. He went through his progressions and got it to him, and that’s what he does. He’s just a scrappy player.”

It wasn’t complicated -- a play-action pass -- but it’s a play they don’t always connect on. But this time, Heinicke keeps the safety in the middle of the field with his eyes, then hits his plant step, hitches and throws as Bates is about to cut outside.

“You see times when he is hanging in the pocket and he delivers the ball down field like he did ... John Bates for the touchdown,” Rivera said. “Those things are the things that you expect him to make and he does them and so you know he is capable.”